Art, Propaganda and Death in Ancient Rome ; Show Doesn't Whitewash Dark Aspects of Empire's Fabled 2nd Century A.D

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An exhibition in Rome traces the political and economic foundations of the second century A.D., when the empire reached its widest expanse and highest population.

"If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus," Edward Gibbon wrote in "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."

In so declaring, the English historian was following the lead of a number of Roman and Renaissance authors, who took an equally rosy view of the state of the empire and humanity during the second century.

At first glance, by its very title "The Age of Equilibrium, 98- 180 A.D.: Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius," the third in a series of exhibitions on art and society in ancient Rome at the Capitoline Museums, seems to be endorsing this traditional historical assessment that stretches from Pliny the Younger through Machiavelli and Gibbon into modern times.

But a strength of this latest show, curated by Eugenio La Rocca and Claudio Parisi Presicce with Annalisa Monaco, and especially of its catalog, is that, while achievements are recognized, darker aspects are not whitewashed and the dominant role played by propaganda in public art of the era is highlighted.

The reputation the second century won as a golden age was substantially based on the unusual stability of the political establishment during this period and on the economic prosperity that helped to nurture.

That stability was largely the result of the abandonment of the direct hereditary principle in the imperial succession in favor of the practice of adopting suitably talented candidates. Thus Nerva adopted Trajan in 97 A.D.; Trajan's second cousin Hadrian succeeded him in 117; Hadrian adopted Antoninus Pius in 138, who adopted his son-in-law Marcus Aurelius as his own successor.

In a return to the old system, Marcus Aurelius was succeeded in 180 by his son Commodus, whose behavior became increasingly deranged. As everyone who has seen "Gladiator" now knows, Commodus developed a penchant for taking a personal part in gladiatorial displays (yet in reality met his end not in the arena but when he was strangled in his bath).

The first room of the show, "The Leading Actors," introduces us to the stars of the epoch in the form of more than 40 portrait statues and busts of the emperors, their wives, daughters and favorites.

What is immediately striking in the representation of the male players is that they are so often depicted in some form of military dress.

This introduces one of the central paradoxes of this notional age of peace and harmony. For while the Emperor Augustus, a victorious general and founder of the imperial system, was seldom represented as a warrior, the emperors of the second century relentlessly emphasized this role.

The empire reached its greatest extent -- an area of 3.5 million square kilometers, or 1.35 million square miles, with an estimated population of 55 million -- during the reign of Trajan. Much of what he did to transform Rome is still visible from the Capitoline Museums or within a few minutes' walk. The Trajan Forum was the largest and grandest of all the forums and the so-called Trajan Markets on the hillside above are well preserved. Nearby are the remains of the huge Trajan Baths on the Oppian Hill -- the first to include a library, park and cultural complex -- which was to serve as the model for all subsequent monumental baths. Vast infrastructure projects included a new port at Ostia, canals, quays, aqueducts and sewers.

But these improvements were mainly financed by war booty, especially what was gained from 101 to 106 during the conquest of Dacia -- a kingdom centered on present-day Romania and Moldova.

These wars were celebrated in the spiraling friezes of Trajan's Column on the edge of the Trajan Forum, the first column of its kind and the first depictions of an emperor on campaign. …